Considering how many long days Western Hockey League general managers have spent trying to figure how to get their teams back on the ice, perhaps it’s ironic DUBNetwork spoke with Bruce Hamilton of the Kelowna Rockets on the shortest day of the year.
Indeed, it’s that time of year when many WHL teams are in the process of sending players home for the Christmas break in the regular season schedule.
“I said to my wife on the weekend,” Hamilton offered, “it’s 30 years now that we’ve been finishing up the schedule in Saskatoon, just freezing out there, then coming back home to Kelowna for Christmas.
“You know historically, our guys would be arriving at their homes today or yesterday for the Christmas break. It was certainly different this past weekend, I can tell you that.”
The entire WHL has been in a holding pattern, given lockdown rules and regulations that impact its 22 junior hockey markets. The initial Oct. 2 starting date was delayed to Dec. 4. Then, opening night was postponed to Jan. 8.
It all changed again last week.
Such is life in the WHL these days and precisely why the powers-that-be have decided not to pinpoint a new startup date for the 2020-21 season.
“Well, I think that’s why you see no date now,” Hamilton said when asked about the most recent meetings among the board of governors. “It’s gotten to a point where tried two or three times.
“Personally, I think that it’s not fair to the kids to throw a date out there now. I think they all have been great and understand fully that it’s totally out of our control. When the health authorities decide to say ‘go’, then we go. But until then, it’s no go.”
While the players are a huge consideration in all of this, there are many other factors as well. The impact on player development and even in some cases, eligibility, has been discussed at great length during the pandemic. But we asked Hamilton about the general mood in Kelowna without major junior hockey in the forefront.
“I think for the senior population here, many are quite bored,” he said. “We have a significant senior’s representation among our season ticket holders. They’re one group of society that has almost been totally locked down. I think they’ve probably missed the social side of it for sure.
“And beyond that, I think one of the biggest concerns for me and for our crew here going forward will be that we have to get relevant again. Eventually, we’ll have to get the Rockets back on the front page. The World Juniors will help because we’re gonna have three kids there.”
With the IIHF and Hockey Canada moving full steam ahead with the 2021 World Junior Championship in Edmonton, the Rockets will indeed have a presence.
Veteran defenceman Kaedan Korczak was named to the Team Canada roster. The Yorkton, Saskatchewan-native is coming off his most productive of three seasons in Kelowna. He scored 11 goals and added 38 assists in 60 games before the season was suspended. It was one year ago to the day he signed an entry-level contract with the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Forward Pavel Novak has cracked the Czech Republic roster. The rookie import led the Rockets in scoring with 25 goals and 33 assists in 55 games last season. At the 2020 NHL Draft, Novak was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the fifth round, 146th overall.
The Rockets fan base will also be closely watching defenceman Michael Krutil. He will join Novak on the Czech Republic team, but the 6’3, 202-pounder has yet to appear in a game for the Rockets. Krutil, selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fourth round of the 2020 Draft, 110th overall, was Kelowna’s first pick in the most recent CHL Import Draft.
“I think he’s going to be a real good player,” Hamilton said of Krutil. “Regardless of what happens this season, all of those kids will be prominent parts of our team.”
A challenge for every WHL organization of late has been monitoring player development. With group workouts being shelved, no training camps held to date, and many players still living in their hometowns, the onus has been on coaching staffs to keep the players busy and accountable.
“Our coaches have done a great job, communicating weekly with them,” Hamilton said. “Our athletic therapist (Scott Hoyer) has done a great job with their fitness.
“They’re all on the same app on their phones with him, so the reports come in every week. And he’s tried to find ways to start them up and slow them down and, you know, find some humor in it for them.
“Honestly, I’ve been really impressed with the way the players are handling this. I think for a lot of them it’s an adjustment. Just to be at home, they’re not used to that. And I suppose it’s an adjustment for mom’s and dad’s, too, having them around.”
The business side
Beyond the Okanagan Valley, where the Rockets have had success on and off the ice, there is also the bigger picture to consider. Hamilton was candid about the mood in Kelowna these days and was suitably straightforward when asked about the mood in the WHL boardroom.
“I feel for the general managers because it’s the governors making the financial decisions,” he said. “The general manager, they all want to get going, get moving, and get doing everything.
“A lot of people thought we could make it to Christmas and then get going. But, it’s not going to happen so they’re making sure that they can find a way to survive if we get started up in late February or March. If there’s no fans, there’s going to be a huge cost for everybody.
“You know, it’s all based first of all, on safety. Then, liability is a big part of it. And then, just the cost factors, like who can afford to do what.
“A lot of it is planning. And, you know, if you weren’t in a position where you had some rainy-day funds put aside, you’ve got to make sure that you’re going to find a way to stay in business.”
While junior hockey fans enjoy the entertainment value, operating efficiency on the business side for major junior hockey teams is an enormous undertaking. There is also the impact on the business community in each market.
One aspect relates to how the teams interact with media in WHL cities. There is a financial impact as well.
The teams are generally supportive partners, spending important advertising dollars with a variety of media in each community. Of course, contra arrangements exist, but advertising dollars are vital.
The teams also provide significant content for local media, providing opportunities for staff writers.
The benefit of these working relationships with the Kelowna media is not lost on Hamilton, who had an ownership stake in the Kelowna Capital News many years ago before the newspaper was acquired by Black Press.
“Well, we’re feeding as much information as we can to them,” Hamilton said of providing local news. “I know in Regan’s case (radio play-by-play voice, Regan Bartel), he’s got a pretty good gig, so he’s working at the radio station and as soon as there’s a chance to get started, he’ll be ready to go.
“But, the newspaper world, the daily paper continues to get smaller and smaller and now it’s five days a week, not seven days. I think it’s critical that the Daily Courier stay in business. The Kelowna Capital News seems to have found a niche here and have done a great job doing what they’ve had to do to get in on the advertising side.
“I think that when you start losing your newspapers, to me, you start to lose the identity of your city. You know, there’s just so much wire story stuff these days. I know people want to read about what’s happening locally.
“We help to create readership because we’re local news.”
(Erickson has been a freelance writer for over 30 years and covered the WHL in Kelowna between 2005 and 2019. He provided Rockets home game coverage for the Kelowna Daily Courier during the 2019-2020 season.)